Time: from Regulator to Terminator

Marking the passage of time is such an ingrained part of modern Western society that we usually give little thought to why we are conditioned to do so.  Business and industry strive for the most efficient use of time to maximize the profitable productivity of their investment of material resources and human energy.  Contracts and agreements are drawn up and ratified with reference to the boundaries and limits of the time during which the agreement is to be carried out.  In social life, much is made of anniversaries and the celebration of what has been done or accomplished in the span of years leading up to the chronological milestone being observed.  All of these things are treated in a positive way:  “Happy Birthday,” “Happy Anniversary,” or “Happy New Year” we say.  But at the gut level, we all recognize that the passage of time leads eventually to the demise of the organization, or the nation, or the person whose milestone is being affirmed.  In other words, time, in our experience of it as fallen creatures, inexorably weaves the web that ensnares us in death.  Shakespeare’s Macbeth, at the end of his campaign to manipulate the world of time for his own benefit, expresses the despair that comes with realizing he has always been the victim of time, rather than the master of it.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death.

(Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5, scene 5)

Time became our enemy when Adam and Eve rejected God’s order of things and thought to set up an alternative order, a substitute kingdom with themselves as rulers.  The way we experience time in our fallen state is at the core of our alienation from God, so how does our experience differ from the way God intended for time to function?   In His essence, God is completely unaffected by time, since time is perceived and measured only through some sort of change taking place, and God is immutable, without beginning or end, changeless.  However, His present creation does have a beginning and an end, and even in the Garden before the Fall, time was a defining element of order in both the act of creation and its ongoing operation. The Genesis account of creation calls its phases “days” even before the sun was created to define them, and the concept of the seven-day week, culminated by a God-honoring Seventh Day of rest, showed time as a natural thread integrated into a perfect creation;  but time in Eden carried with it no sense of limitation or decay. It was merely a regulator in the daily activities of Adam and Eve in caring for the garden.  But of course, sin changed all of that.  God’s regulator became humankind’s terminator.  

In the poem below, I have imagined Adam at the end of his first year of living with the consequences of his and Eve’s sin.  He shares something of Macbeth’s dark vision of the relentless advance of time, but unlike Macbeth, he also knows that God’s light and presence, though diminished, are still with him.


Adam's First New Year

Adam paced the field

Made rough by tilling,

Unwilling ground since God

Withdrew His Presence from it.

The sun itself, now cyclic,

Gave only partial beams

To warm the stubborn soil.

"No need in Eden's bounds

To think of ebb and flow,

Of patterned change

Which gives us markers

For the progress of decay;

But now each day reveals

That something more of what we were

Is lost,

And nights accumulate

Until the sun comes back

To mark the point where death began.

"That day, I made a world

Where beginnings add up to ends,

And cycles are incremental.

Can God be heard in such a place?

Can timeless Love be found

Where time feeds hateful death?

I only know that breath,

Though shortened now,

Is still from Him;

And though I sweat for bread,

He feeds me yet."

--Elton D. Higgs

 (Jan. 1, 1983)

Image: "Closing Time" by Kevin Dooley. CC License. 


Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)